Despite congressional pressure, Amtrak can’t get its story straight on train-boarding rules

Trains, unlike airplanes, have many doors that passengers can use to get on and off. Consequently, train boarding works differently than airplane boarding: Train passengers wait on the platform for the train to arrive and then, when the doors open, pour in — making it possible for a huge crowd to embark in a relatively short amount of time.

At least that’s how boarding a train works on the New York City Subway, Washington Metro, and other mass transit operations around the country. It’s also how European intercity and mass transit trains work. And it’s how you board trains at many Amtrak intercity stations in the US.

Yet curiously, even though the big advantage of this boarding method is how quickly it allows large numbers of people to get on and off, it is not how Amtrak boards trains at its busiest stations — New York Penn Station and Washington Union Station.

In DC, passengers are subjected to an airline-style queuing system where everyone needs to get their tickets checked as they pass through a single gate. This routinely produces overcrowding and confusion inside the station and slows the entire process down.

And most strikingly of all, nobody at Amtrak can explain why they do it this way.

Amtrak’s weird, shifting story on train boarding

When I first wrote about this during Vox’s launch in the spring of 2014, Amtrak officials said security concerns mandated airline-style boarding. This did not make a lot of sense, since a would-be train bomber could easily avoid whatever security benefit the Union Station queuing provided by simply boarding at New Carrollton or one of the many other Northeast Corridor stations that allow platform boarding.

Faiz Siddiqui of the Washington Post has a new article about this in which he garnered a new answer: Union Station is a “unique situation” because so many trains turn around.

Why doesn’t Amtrak give riders access to the train platforms, allowing them time to choose their seats and board the train at their leisure? Such a system also would ease crowding and the chaotic lines at the gates, passengers say. Is it because of security concerns? Amtrak calls it a “unique situation.”

Alison Simon, a senior director for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, the country’s busiest line extending from Boston to Washington, said the boarding process at Union Station is not primarily for security reasons.

Rather, because the Northeast Corridor terminates in Washington, many trains need to be restocked, mechanically inspected and cleaned at Union Station — along with requiring either a physical turnaround, called “wyeing” — outside the station or undergoing up to an hour-long process to restore it to service. She said the railroad does not want customers to queue on the platform while those processes are taking place, both because of the equipment and the personnel working to ready trains for service.

There are several reasons to doubt this.

For starters, while many of Amtrak’s trains do turn around at Union Station, many other trains do not. The exact same procedure is in place for both trains that are southbound to Virginia or arriving from Virginia and for trains that are turning at Union Station.

Second, Amtrak employs a variant of the queuing process at New York Penn Station, even though Amtrak trains (unlike Long Island Rail Road or New Jersey Transit trains) don’t turn around there.

Third and most importantly, there is nothing remotely “unique” about Union Station being a busy mostly terminal train station that also has some through-trains. The Gare du Nord in Paris — which happens to be the busiest train station in Europe — is the terminus for various intercity high-speed services and some Transilien commuter lines, while also featuring RER commuter train through-service. But unless you are taking the train to the United Kingdom (a genuinely unique situation) you board in a very normal way.

The sad truth is that Amtrak appears to genuinely not know why the current rules are in place, but the company is stuck in a mentality of defensiveness about it rather than opening up to the possibility that things should change. The fact of the matter, however, is that the United States — for all its many virtues — is clearly not a world leader in passenger trains. It should get less parochial and learn from foreign examples.

Amtrak doesn’t know why it does this

Back in the fall of 2014, House Republicans pushed legislation that, among other things, asked Amtrak to evaluate the boarding procedures at its busiest stations. This provision was adopted as part of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (“FAST,” get it?), a bipartisan deal that came together in 2015.

That led to a 2016 Inspector General report on the matter, which offered the explanation that “station managers told us they have instituted gate control procedures in response to large passenger volumes and concerns that passengers may board the wrong trains.”

But the large passenger volumes at Union Station are clearly a reason to adopt a faster and more efficient boarding process that would let people get on the trains more quickly. Funneling everyone through a single choke-point would be fine if there weren’t a lot of passengers; the large passenger volume is what turns this into such a big problem.

The risk that passengers would board the wrong train, by contrast, seems more real. That said, this problem exists at train stations around the world. For example, the busy L’Enfant Plaza Metro station in DC features five different services (Green, Yellow, Orange, Blue, Silver) arriving on four tracks at two platforms — and passengers mostly just need to figure it out, with station officials’ main job being to provide clear signage.

The 2016 report’s clearest conclusion is that nobody in the Amtrak central office is actually in charge of this. Instead, individual station managers are deciding what happens on their own account. As the IG says, “without a senior accountable official, the management of boarding processes is decentralized, resulting in uneven attention to boarding issues across the company.”

In particular, the report concludes that a key factor driving policies is simply the small-c conservatism of rank-and-file employees who don’t want to change things. At Penn Station in New York, for example, the official reason you’re not allowed to board from the lower-level mezzanine is that there’s no staff available to work down there. But the growing share of riders using e-tickets means there’s less need for staff to work as ticket sales agents; employees simply prefer not to change their work roles.

That’s understandable on a human level but not really a great way to run a railroad. Similarly, while the desire to minimize mistaken boardings of the wrong train at Union Station makes sense, the fact remains that the vast majority of busy train stations around the world have come to a different conclusion about the tradeoff here.

Amtrak’s practice is out of step with standard procedure, and their spokespeople offer shifting justifications for it rather than actually designating a senior official to take a hard look at whether or not this makes sense.